LGBTQI Rights – Are These PEN Concerns?

by Pandora Longstreth

At the LGBTQI Panel Discussion at the 80th PEN International Congress this year, questions were raised about the suitability of PEN’s focus on LGBTQI rights over other important freedom of expression issues.

The 80th PEN International Congress was hosted, this year, in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan by Central Asia PEN at the end of September. Three LGBT writers and activists were invited to talk on an LGBTQI Panel Discussion about freedom of expression and the LGBTQI community worldwide as well as more topical discussions on proposed anti-LGBT legislations in Kyrgyzstan earlier that year.

LGBTQI panel

Kyrgyzstan and LQBTQI rights

Earlier this year, anti-gay propaganda legislation was introduced to the Kyrgyzstan government. This piece of legislation is said to be an almost exact copy of the anti-gay legislation brought in by the Russian government earlier this year. The Kyrgyzstan piece of legislation proposed, which has already passed through the first step to legalisation, would make the propaganda of non-traditional relationships illegal in Kyrgyzstan.

“The legislation would target the LGBT community of Kyrgyzstan by criminalizing what is called “propaganda” of “non-traditional” relationships. The bill—its intent obscured by its anodyne name, “On Introducing Additions to Some Legislative Acts of the Kyrgyz Republic”—would introduce criminal penalties of up to 12 months in prison for writing positively or factually about LGBT issues.”  PEN International.

An interesting observation by PEN International was how the ambiguity of the terminology used in this piece of legislation (as well as the recently passed Russian legislation) would also incriminate negative portrayals of ‘traditional’ sexual relationships alongside ‘non-traditional’ relationships. They see this as having a huge effect on a vast proportion of the world’s literature and thus making them illegal in Kyrgyzstan.

Are These PEN Concerns?

The members of the LGBTQI Panel Discussion emphasized the importance of the support of PEN  for the freedom of expression rights of members of the LGBT community worldwide. However, in the discussion afterwards, there were some opposing views toward PEN’s involvement with the fight for LGBTQI rights worldwide.

“It was said that even though PEN has long stood against discrimination, including ‘sexual’ discrimination, this kind of issue should not be a focus for PEN. It was said that LGBT rights are not included in the Charter, that PEN should focus on ‘more essential questions’ such as linguistic rights, and Kurdish language rights. It was said that PEN has no cases of writers imprisoned for LGBT views.” PEN International

It was suggested that these issues should be discussed outside of Congress as they were not seen as PEN issues and that they were not included in the PEN Charter.

This idea was responded to in a recent article by PEN International on their website, favouring the view that PEN should stand up for LGBTQI rights.

Firstly, they stated that the statement that PEN had no cases of writers imprisoned for LGBT views was false. That in fact, not only did these new laws in Kyrgyzstan and Russia threaten the freedom of expression for LGBT writers and activists (and the general public) but that there actually have been cases of writers and activists across the world who had been imprisoned/affected by anti-gay laws.

For example:

Nikolai Alexyev

In Russia, journalist and gay-rights activist was the first person arrested for spreading gay propaganda, and he is currently facing a criminal libel case for his criticism of politicians who support the legislation.

David Cecil and Keith Prosser

Several African countries are enacting legislation limiting LGBT freedom of expression—in Uganda, where homosexuality is illegal, the dramatist and the actor (respectively) were detained and deported to the UK for their work on a play about gay activists.

Eric Ohena Lembembe

In Cameroon, writer and gay rights activist was murdered in July 2013, his body mutilated. Lembembe’s neck and feet appeared to have been broken, while his face, hands and feet had been burned with an iron.

Alongside this , the World Indigenous Peoples Conference, in the past year, have come across at least four more cases for the Internation Cities of Refuge Network of LGBT writers under threat and seeking refuge from Iran, Nigeria and Somalia.

Resolving the issue

The PEN International concluded this discussion clear resolution: including LGBT freedom of expression in their Charter and a keeping/including this community as clear part of PEN’s work.

“So yes, LGBT freedom of expression activists belong in PEN. As for the PEN Charter: how is it possible to read the Charter and conclude that it excludes any writer, indeed any citizen of any country, merely by omission?  PEN members ‘pledge themselves… to champion the ideal of one humanity living in peace in one world… [and] to oppose any form of suppression of freedom of expression in the country and community to which they belong, as well as throughout the world wherever this is possible.’”

The following day after the LGBTQI Panel Discussion, the General Assembly approved unanimously the two resolutions dealing with LGBTQI rights—the general resolution committing PEN to such action, and the specific resolution concerned with Kyrgyzstan.

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